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6 The Oddball Princess

    Lady Ilse's household was in a state of dignified uproar on the second dawn after Hilde - in more ways than one - woke up.

    She and the two princesses were each preparing to travel to the queendom's capital. They needed to be on their way before the sun rose or they wouldn't make it in time for the funeral rites, which traditionally began at noon.

    Even by carriage, the travel time should only take around four hours for royals who could change horses at every outpost. On account of Hilde's condition, however, they would have to go much slower.

    Because her neck no longer felt sore, Hilde had insisted on taking off the brace, but her skull still throbbed, and she grew dizzy and weak with every little movement. The most well-sprung carriage would still churn her brain to mush. Unlike the last two days, however, she simply cannot afford to be drugged into a stupor this day.

    Presently, though the sun was already peeking over the eastern horizon, one of the three ladies was still underdressed.

    After giving Hilde permission to delay her return, the Queen seemed to have forgotten about her younger sister. Busy as she was with the current state of affairs - and her fears of losing another heir having been laid to rest - her lapse was understandable. What was less understandable was how Princess Hilde's own attendants also seemed to have forgotten about her.

    After realizing the previous night that Hilde's mourning dress was yet to be delivered, Lady Ilse hurriedly sent a courier to the palace in Oste to remedy the situation. She couldn't simply lend her one as none of her own clothes nor Gisela's would fit. Hilde was already tall for a girl to begin with, but she had grown even taller in the last few months.

    Hilde's mourning dress had arrived in the manor only a quarter of an hour ago. It was the proper gray of bereavement, done in the plainest style, but it was tight across Hilde's shoulders and chest, and the hem fell two inches short of an acceptable length.

    That was because it's been half a year since Hilde was last measured for a new set of wardrobe. For comparison, Lady Ilse would have old clothes altered or new ones made for her still-growing daughter every four months.

    "Really!" Lady Ilse had stormed as soon as she entered Hilde's room and saw her in the ill-fitting dress. "Has the palace servants' competence declined this much? Forgetting to send you clothes, not keeping track of your measurements - you're still a princess, whatever else you are!"

    Without being told, Lady Ilse's three attendants approached Hilde and, as gently as they had helped her put it on, stripped her of the offensive garment. She was assisted to a chair, then, as quickly as they could without resorting to shoddy workmanship, the maids undid the dress's stitching so they could adjust the size as much as the available fabric would allow.

    Their automatic competence put a fine point to their mistress's condemning words about the palace servants.

    "I dismissed all my personal attendants except one, Aunt Ilse," Hilde explained while watching the highly trained maids work, fascinated despite her own aversion to doing needlework. She was, in essence, taking on all the blame by saying this, but the Lady really couldn't disapprove of Hilde any more than she already did. "I'm afraid I didn't choose her for competence. It was for turning a blind eye to whatever I did."

    'As long as I returned the favor, of course,' she added to herself, privately appreciating how she never needed to plan an escape when Nadia was her chaperone. Somehow, she'd always find that her maid had made her escape first.

    That suited Hilde just fine. She had long ago decided that she didn't want to be served, mostly because that entailed having people hovering around her all the time, for no good reason other than to await her pleasure. After entering adolescence, she discovered that "her pleasure" was to be left alone as much as possible, free to pursue her own interests.

    It was also just as well that her interests - practicing swordplay, archery, and horseback riding, among other things - brought harm only to herself. Her rebellious years could really have gone a lot worse, all things considered. Now, being unconstrained had simply become a habit.

    Hilde was half-expecting Lady Ilse to go on a tirade because of what she just said. After all, that statement was also half-meant to goad her. But the older woman not only remained calm, she also took on a thoughtful air as she squinted at the long-limbed and - to the matron's visible distaste - leanly muscled girl on the chair.

    Huffing suddenly, she withdrew her attention for the moment to check on the maids' progress. "Leave off doing the hem for now," she instructed. "That could be finished on the carriage once there's enough daylight."

    The three maids nodded their understanding and, under bright lamps, focused on the dress's other sections. It was truly remarkable how they could keep working on their own part without getting in each other's way. They were so efficient that they got everything but the hem done in less than ten minutes.

    Wasting no time, they helped Hilde put on the dress again. She found that not only did it fit much better, she would also not have known it had been hastily let out and re-stitched if she hadn't seen it being done.

    For the first time since she fell off a horse and her entire world changed, Hilde broke into a wide, almost childlike smile as she met the three maids' eyes.

    "What marvelous skills," she told them, her awe evident. "Thank you!"

    The maids gave small, hesitant smiles as they bowed in acknowledgment, but as they did so, they couldn't help glancing at each other with knotted foreheads.

    Who wouldn't be confused when someone of such high rank shows that much appreciation for an ordinary service rendered? Even when servants accomplish much greater feats, nobles and royals rarely make a comment that's not a complaint, let alone offer praise. Or thanks.

    They hadn't seen much evidence of it during her short visits to Nelke in the past, but it seemed it was true, what people say - this princess really was an oddball.

    But... well... not that that was strictly a bad thing.

    The maids were slightly more attentive as they helped Hilde back to her chair.

    Under normal circumstances, she would not have accepted assistance on any account, but the effects of the last concoction she drank were long gone, and it was all she could do not to collapse. She closed her eyes against the burst of pain that the impact of her rump meeting the seat had caused, silently cursing the timing of her consciousness's arrival to this world.

    Preoccupied since earlier, Hilde didn't notice how Lady Ilse had been observing her again. The older woman's expression had softened at the sight of the girl's smile, as well as her strange enthusiasm for something everyone else just took for granted. In those moments, Hilde had displayed a striking resemblance to Lady Ilse's late husband.

    Seeing Hilde's grimace next, Lady Ilse's frown returned.

    She addressed one of her maids: "See if the physician can give her something that's only for pain." To another: "Have the coachman bring the carriage to the entrance. If she's ready, bid Gisela await us there." Finally, to the third one, she said: "Fix that hair."

    The orders were followed at once and to the letter. With gentle, practiced hands, the third maid went to work brushing and arranging Hilde's wavy, silver-blonde locks into a swept-back style that still fell freely down her back.

    Lady Ilse eyed Hilde critically, then she observed, "It is not a happy color in any sense, but gray brings out your eyes." She paused. She had nearly added, "It suits you," but just managed not to. Though she'd have meant it as a compliment, she superstitiously thought it could just as easily be a curse. Who would want to be told they looked good in mourning? In the end, Lady Ilse merely repeated, "You are still a princess."

    Hilde could not figure out how the statement related to the one before, and she was also left feeling slightly uncomfortable. What did being "a princess" even mean?

    The third maid finished her task just as the other two returned. The first handed Hilde a vial of something that the physician said could take the edge off her pain but might worsen her dizziness. She gulped it down. She then accepted the second maid's help to stand up so they could all go to where the carriage waited. It only needed boarding now; they can finally set off for Oste.

    Truthfully, Hilde didn't think anyone in the capital would have noticed, let alone cared, if her clothes didn't fit or if her hair looked a fright. She had never been accused of being beautiful. Not even as a lie.

    Growing up, whenever the two were together, it was always Gisela who received comments like, "My, what a great beauty you'll grow up to be!" After all, her golden cousin was the daughter of Lady Ilse - the most beautiful woman in the land during her day - and the late Prince Johann, the country's most beloved royal in living memory.

    Lady Ilse was still very striking, despite pushing fifty. After her husband died in battle near the end of their last war with Lys, it was famously told how suitors could barely wait for the proper mourning period to pass before they lined up for her hand.

    True, most of these men had really been after the control of the domain that Prince Johann ruled, but there were also some who had been romantically bent... and a lot more persistent.

    The tragically widowed Lady had entertained none. She already had perfection in her kind and dashing Prince. What use could she ever have for lesser men?

    Hilde recalled how some girls and grown women would weep whenever they told each other this tale of true love cut down before its time. She never really understood the appeal of such stories - nor the depth of the pain felt by those who actually lived them - until she did.

    Other than Gisela, Lothar had been the only living person who ever gave Hilde unconditional attention and care. Of course she loved him for it. Of course his untimely death hurt her like nothing else.

    That still didn't mean she should let her emotions take over.

    Didn't this also count as "endurance"? Even Lady Ilse had not been allowed by circumstances to nurse her grief for as long as she needed to. She had a child to raise, governance and politics to deal with. She alone managed what her husband left behind, keeping it in trust for when Princess Gisela comes of age and can begin to take up her birthright, with all its accompanying responsibilities.

    That's right: Gisela had always been her father's true inheritor. From infancy, she had been brought up with her future position in mind, and she always possessed the beauty and charm one would automatically associate with the title of "princess."

    On the other hand, before the deaths, before the fall, Hilde sometimes felt that her own title was an empty one. Left to herself, she couldn't even get "the look" right. She had no position to inherit, no important role to play in the future. Even now, she was still only a spare.

    Because it was not the first time, the princess felt unspeakable guilt as she headed to where the other princess waited and wondered... why was she not Gisela?
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